An Outdoor View: The master exaggerator

Posted: Friday, November 05, 2010

In 1937, George Leonard Herter started a revolution.

Having noted the difficulty of finding outdoor gear in the small sporting goods shops of the time, Herter envisioned a catalog and large stores where sportsmen could buy everything they needed. Starting above his father's dry-goods store in Waseca, Minn., he went to work.

Over the following 40 years, Herter's catalogs and stores changed the way outdoor gear was marketed. By the late 1970s, the name Herter's meant to hunters and fishermen what Cabela's and Bass Pro mean today. Herter's catalogs were not only helpful, they were entertaining. They ran up to 700 pages, and were irresistible to hunters, tin-can shooters, fishermen, trappers, reloaders, gear-heads -- pretty much the entire the male population of Earth.

In writing the catalog copy -- and he wrote all of it -- "good" wasn't good enough for Herter. He embellished his offerings with "Special," "Patented, "World Famous" and "The World's Finest." His goods weren't simply manufactured, but were "made with infinite care by our most expert old craftsmen," and "actually made far better than is necessary." If you've watched a "Seinfeld" rerun and heard J. Peterman describe the clothing in his catalog with extravagant prose and wildly exaggerated claims, you have an idea of Herter's style of writing.

Apparently, writing in catalogs wasn't enough to satisfy Herter's urge to exaggerate. He self-published several books, all equally outrageous and bombastic, sold only through his stores and catalogs. These included "How to Get Out of the Rat Race and Live on $10 a Month" and "How to Live With a Bitch." His most popular book, in three volumes and at least 15 editions, was "Bull Cook and Authentic Historical Recipes and Practices," co-authored by his wife, Berthe E. Herter. A chaotic concoction of recipes, insane claims and fantastic philosophy, "Bull Cook" contains detailed instructions on everything from how to broil tiger's feet, to how to survive a hydrogen bomb attack.

Herter held several patents, and was always hatching get-rich schemes -- petroleum refining, leopard ranching and scorpion milking, to name a few. Despite these ideas, or possibly because of them, Herter's, Inc. went bankrupt in 1981.

Herter died in 1994, but a cult of nostalgic geezers lingers on. They buy up yellowing, dog-eared copies of "Bull Cook," apparently enraptured by The Master Exaggerator's cocksure-edness, lecturing tone and his incredible assertions, the most famous of which is "Being eaten alive by hyenas is less painful than you would think."

Les Palmer lives in Sterling.

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